Charles Dickens visited Preston in January 1854 to report on the cotton lock-out of that year. What he saw contributed to his vision of the archetypal northern, urban industrial centre, Coketown:
It was a town of red brick or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever and never got uncoiled.
Three years later a rather different topographical account appeared in Charles Hardwick's history of the borough:
Notwithstanding the occasional carpings of a few splenetic travellers, Preston is generally and deservedly recognized as one of the cleanest and most pleasantly situated manufacturing towns in England. The cotton factories are chiefly erected to the north and east of the old aristocratic borough …. and do not as yet materially interfere with the more ‘fashionable’ or picturesque sections of the district.
The contrast illuminates the shortcomings of the town history both as literature and historical geography; but indicates the tenor of Prestonian self-justification. It is precisely this prosaic subjectivity which makes the histories a rich source. As Peter Clark asserts, ‘even fifth-rate urban historians sometimes have an important story to tell.’
Unlike many other towns with long-established traditions of urban chronicling, history writing in Preston did not blossom until the nineteenth century.